The number of firearms officers in England and Wales has fallen for the fourth year in a row despite the heightened risk of a terrorist attack.

The number of armed police dropped to 5,639 as of 31 March, which is 1,267 less than were ready to be deployed in 2010, figures released by the Home Office show.

Despite the heightened risk of a terrorist attack following shootings in France, continued cuts to policing budgets meant the number of police marksmen dropped by eight in the 12 months to March.

The government announced an extra 1,500 armed officers, including 600 for the Metropolitan Police, in April but these are not expected to be fully operational until next year.

Che Donald, lead on firearms for the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: "We have repeatedly raised concerns around adequate numbers of firearms officers and we remain curious as to where this extra number will come from.

"While the argument for sufficient numbers to help manage any potential terror attack on UK soil speaks for itself, the support firearms officers give to our unarmed colleagues is just as important."

Donald warned that the drop in numbers was so severe that officers were being left on their own without armed support in dangerous situations.

He said rural areas were at particular risk in the face of a terror attack, adding to fears already expressed by the chairman of the Hampshire Police Federation, John Apter, who warned some parts of the country were "sitting ducks" should a Paris-style attack occur.

He told The Times there was a "real sense of vulnerability. I don't think that 1,500 officers is enough, given events we have seen in France".

The National Police Chiefs' Council said it was on track to deliver the extra officers by the target date of April 2017.

A spokesman for the Home Office said: "It is for operationally independent chief officers to determine the number of authorised firearms officers in their areas based on a thorough assessment of threat and risk.

"Following the Paris attacks last year, the Government announced that £144m will be provided over the course of the Spending Review period to uplift armed policing capability and capacity in order to respond more quickly and effectively to a firearms attack."

armed police numbers
The number of Authorised Firearms Officers (AFO) has dropped for the fourth year in a row Home Office